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Comments on the meaning of Yin-Yang

What follows is an excerpt from an email exchange that I reproduce with permission while keeping the identity of my correspondent private. The topic is the Yin and Yang symbol. The quoted part, which appears as indented on my website, is from my correspondent.


Here is what I see in the Yin-Yang image:

  • Nothingness and existence (alternatively, two opposing ends: Yin 阴 means darkness, Yang 阳 brightness), which are represented by the black and white colors, are embedded in each other and are interrelated.

  • Change and movement: nothingness engenders existence, and vice versa; this transformation happens all the time.

  • Harmony and balance between Yin and Yang, which is represented by the perfect circle and the overall symmetry of the image.

My interpretation is influenced by the books on Taoism that I’ve read and by the Chinese culture. You probably see something different, given your Greek background and your personal philosophy. Now, it’s your turn to share. :)

I agree with your interpretation, though I have not studied Taoism (not yet, anyway). Some further thoughts…

The two colours are opposites, yet their opposition is not in their capacity as colours but in their attributes. In more abstract terms, black and white are the same, as both are a colour/tone. When we then think of extremes, we should consider that which binds them together or that common thread running through them.

For this reason I have a concept of “the scope of application”. What I mean by this is that in every inquiry we operate at a given level of abstraction. If I argue that “black and white are the same” you should not think I am crazy and am speaking nonsense. Rather you should offer me a chance to explain my reasoning, at which point I would remark that the scope of application at which I operate omits the attributes that make those two different: it is more abstract.

The scope of application influences another concept I have: “the constitution of the case”. This is about the given factors in their interplay. For example, if we say a person’s hair is black, our scope of application is at the level of the hair as a whole, so we leave out factors such as what is happening at the stratum where vitamins are processed to produce hair, what happens to give it colour and shape, and so on.

Note that “scope” derives from a Greek word that denotes sight. Hence, tele-scope (afar-sight), peri-scope (around-sight), micro-scope (small-sight)… The Yin-Yang image, and every image for that matter, has at least one scope of application: that of its pictorial representation, i.e. what we see. Though images are likely to contain multiple scopes. If I look at the picture as a whole, I see a circle. If I am more attentive, I can discern the patterns of Yin and Yang, as well as how a bit of each is found in the other—an interesting detail. The more complex the image, the more likely it is that there are multiple scopes of application.

What the image itself already tells us, provided we have the disposition to accept it, is that the scope of application defines the constitution of the case which, in turn, foreshadows what we may comprehend.

Back to the meaning of the Yin-Yang symbol. It encapsulates what I think of the cosmos. At the most abstract level, all is one. All that moves is, holistically, static: it is not going anywhere because it is all there is. All that changes is, in those terms, constant. Differences in appearance, motion and rest, transfiguration are all discernible at certain scopes of application. Again, if I say “all is one” I am not speaking nonsense. Though if I leave it at that, I am committing the error of not clarifying that the case can be reconstituted as such, as another scope of application may be drawn.

The Yin-Yang symbol inspires us to think of particularities in terms of totality. We are invited to appreciate the vital insight that nothing has a standalone presence. It necessarily exists in something. Within the confines of the image, this is understood as Yin always being framed by Yang and vice-versa as both exist within the greater whole of the circle.

All this may sound irrelevant for our daily life. I think that is a mistake. They are directly applicable to what we do. Just imagine how much more tolerant we would all be if we appreciated how the constitution of the case determines our thinking. We would then understand open-mindedness not as virtue signalling (everyone claims to be open-minded) but as the eagerness to consider in earnest a differently constituted case.

This is why I think Yin and Yang are lessons for life. Philosophy, in general, is not a strictly academic pursuit for intellectuals to pass their time while sounding smart. It pertains to the all-too-practical here-and-now of our quotidian life. Whether individual philosophers do a good job at communicating as much is another discussion.